Q&A: Berklee Student Grace Gibson on Her Role in Black Nativity
In the new movie, she sings a duet with Jennifer Hudson. Off the set, she continues to stay on the Dean’s List.
While on set for her very first movie role, Grace Gibson got a chance to work alongside some of the most well-known names in the industry. In Black Nativity, a contemporary big-screen adaptation of Langston Hughes’s 1961 Off-Broadway musical out today, the 21-year-old Berklee College of Music student acted alongside Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Nas, and Mary J. Blige, as well as performed a duet of “Silent Night” with Jennifer Hudson.
But even as she launches her professional career, Gibson continues to stay on the Dean’s List at Berklee, where she’s pursuing a major in professional music and a minor in philosophy, taking a semester off here and there when needed, racking up miles on buses and trains to make it to classes in between stops on the promotional tour for the movie. Last week, we chatted with Gibson about her education both on and off the set, her future plans, and her life in Boston as a student.
In the movie you play Maria, a young girl who is pregnant and homeless. How did you prepare for it?
[Luke James, who plays Maria's boyfriend JoJo] and I play a homeless couple. People call it method acting—we’d make sure that we walked around places and formed our own friendship and relationship, so that chemistry was alive on camera. I wore my prosthetic belly everywhere and people were giving me weird looks on the subway. I could really see what it’s like to be a pregnant teen in Harlem and how people view you. It’s really sad to see the judgment, especially when I was walking around with a male and they’d always assume that he was the father and they’d treat him really badly, which is ironic because you’d think that this man is standing by his woman and trying to do the right thing. Why would you judge him? It was interesting to see that people do judge you for face value, and to have that experience firsthand and really use it as motivation to play these roles of Maria and JoJo.
What was it like to be part of such a star-studded cast?
Oh, to work with all of them was so inspiring. It really taught me so much, being in this conservatory of greatness with all these gladiator actors. And for me, I got to show what I’ve been working on my whole life—being in acting school and dance school and music school and have it all come to fruition. It was really cool to be in that company and it definitely made me step my game up.
Is there anything specific you picked up from anyone?
I learned so much about filmmaking and the process of how they approach the characters—just being comfortable with where you are and your knowledge of the script and allowing the character to reveal herself to you. [Forest Whitaker] was very playful. I really saw that when you’re acting in a film, it doesn’t have to be perfect—it just has to be real. Every time we’d do [a take], he’d do it differently and keep me on my toes. And then Angela [Bassett]—she’s so great. She really just told me to stay in school and said, ‘Your career path is not going to leave. You need to take this time to finish your education so you can use what you learn.’ So I’ve been taking her advice and I’ve been back and forth on the bus and Amtrak, making sure I get to classes throughout the semester.
Have you ever had doubts about continuing your education?
There have definitely been moments in my life where I thought I’d just [pursue a career], but when you actually get to the job or whatever the gig is, I think, “Oh, this is so great, but it’d be great to have even more tools—to be able to do more with my voice as a singer, more with my range as an actress, more with my body as a dancer.” If you’re having people hand you knowledge, that’s a luxury—people literally giving you lectures on all you need to know. Some people don’t have the luxury of school at all. I’ve actually learned through both experiences. Having a professional career while being a student, I’ve learned a value in both and how they can symbiotically help each other out. Whenever I’m out of school, I’m still learning just as much and I come back wanting to learn even more, so I love leaving and coming back.
You plan to add a focus in composition or film scoring to your major in professional music and minor in philosophy. Was that decision inspired by your experience in the movie?
Definitely. I got to work with the wonderful Raphael Saadiq [who composed the score]. Seeing how much music they had to spit out in a short period of time, it really inspired me to want to learn more about composition. Learning about the classical composers, it could teach you so much because what they had to do was so complex. These days, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake have to spit out hits, but they had to spit out concertos and symphonies in a week. It really, really trains you to be able to do any kind of music at any time.
You transferred to Berklee after a year and a half at Columbia University. How does Boston compare to New York?
It’s a smaller version of a big city, so it’s cool because it has all of these little neighborhoods. I live in Allston and I love the area. [Boston] is a great place for students because it’s a microcosm of what they’re about to get into. If you can make a name for yourself in Boston as an artist, you know you can move on to New York and Los Angeles as well. It’s a really great city to meet all different types of people from all over the world and see how they react to your art.
Do you have any future plans? What’s more of a priority—music or acting?
They’re all my babies—music, dancing, acting. I couldn’t be myself without one of them. More than anything—more than money—it’s about a spiritual journey and doing what you love. It’s like you’re asking me to choose one of my husbands—I can’t do that! I’m currently auditioning for a lot of stuff and you never know what’s going to happen, but I’m really excited for more roles and putting out my own music video. It’s all looking really good.
Your mom (Lynn Whitfield) is an actress and your dad (Brian Gibson) is a director. Were you always swayed in this direction?
Music and dance and acting have always been a big part of my life, not so much because my parents wanted me to do it for a career—in fact, they didn’t because they wanted me to choose my own career. But when they saw that I got the bug, they were like, “Okay, well, if you’re going to do it, do it,” and it’s been like that ever since.
Do you have any other interests?
I love to cook. My family’s from Louisiana—my mom and my grandma—so food was a big part of that culture. I just love having friends over and watching movies and catching up and, you know, frying some fish. I’m a homebody. We only have our 20s once in our life, and you can choose whether or not you’re going to use them to form a foundation for all the decisions you’re going to make here on out, or if you’re going to choose to make these 10 years a mistake and then try and have to figure everything out when you’re 30. I’m like, “Let me work now and party later.”
11/27/2013, 5:51 p.m.: Gibson's response in question 3 of this interview has been updated to clarify the advice she received from Angela Bassett.